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Cycling cancer persister cells arise from lineages with distinct transcriptional and metabolic programs

By Yaara Oren, Michael Tsabar, Heidie F. Cabanos, Michael S Cuoco, Elma Zaganjor, Pratiksha I. Thakore, Marcin Tabaka, Charles P Fulco, Sara A. Hurvitz, Dennis J. Slamon, Galit Lahav, Aaron Hata, Joan S Brugge, Aviv Regev

Posted 05 Jun 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.06.05.136358

Non-genetic mechanisms have recently emerged as important drivers of therapy failure in cancer, where some cancer cells can enter a reversible drug-tolerant persister state in response to treatment. While most cancer persisters, like their bacterial counterparts, remain arrested in the presence of drug, a rare subset of cancer persisters can re-enter the cell cycle under constitutive drug treatment. Little is known about the non-genetic mechanisms that enable cancer persisters to maintain proliferative capacity in the presence of drug. Here, using time-lapse imaging, we found that cycling persisters emerge early in the course of treatment of EGFR-mutant lung cancer cells with the EGFR inhibitor osimertinib. To study this rare, transiently-resistant, proliferative persister population we developed Watermelon, a new high-complexity expressed barcode lentiviral library for simultaneous tracing each cell's clonal origin, proliferative state, and transcriptional state. Analysis of Watermelon-transduced PC9 cells demonstrated that cycling and non-cycling persisters arise from different pre-existing cell lineages with distinct transcriptional and metabolic programs. The proliferative capacity of persisters is associated with an upregulation of antioxidant gene programs and a metabolic shift to fatty acid oxidation in specific subpopulations of tumor cells. Mitigating oxidative stress or blocking metabolic reprograming significantly alters the fraction of cycling persister cells. In human tumors, programs associated with cycling persisters were induced in malignant cells in response to multiple tyrosine kinase inhibitors. The Watermelon system enabled the identification of rare persister lineages, that are preferentially poised through specific gene programs to proliferate under drug pressure, thus exposing new vulnerabilities that can be targeted to delay or even prevent disease recurrence. ### Competing Interest Statement A.R. is a co-founder and equity holder of Celsius Therapeutics, an equity holder in Immunitas, and an SAB member of ThermoFisher Scientific, Syros Pharmaceuticals, Asimov, and Neogene Therapeutics. YO, AR and JSB are inventors on US patent application 16/563,450 filed by the Broad Institute to expressed barcode libraries as described in this manuscript.

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